On Thursday 2 February, the National Museum of the Royal Navy held its somewhat-delayed ‘big debate’ to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the huge, controversial and inconclusive but dramatic clash between Britain and Germany’s dreadnought battle fleets in June 1916. The debate was a complement to the museum’s fantastic new Jutland exhibition ‘36 Hours: The Battle that Won the War,’ a visit to which is highly recommended, by the way. Anyone who has studied the battle in any depth might have wondered how an hour-and-a-half-long debate could do much to further knowledge and understanding of this famously contentious battle, but the NMRN gave it its best shot, and there were, for me, some surprising and intriguing outcomes.
The makeup of the panel was a big part of the success of the evening, in my view. Perhaps the most ‘obvious’ member was Dr Andrew Gordon, author of the respected, if somewhat controversial, book about the battle The Rules Of The Game. Nick Hewitt, the project leader of the museum’s Jutland exhibition and author of titles such as The Kaiser’s Pirates (about the German commerce raiders early in the war) was another excellent expert voice with a focus on the Royal Navy side of the history in particular. No doubt it would have been all too easy to fill the panel with historians of Royal Navy history on the military side, but the rest of the panel diverged from this laudably, consisting of Dr Stephan Huck, Director of the German Naval Museum and Dr Laura Rowe, lecturer at the University of Exeter who has done extensive research into the social and cultural history of the First World War and the Royal Navy. The debate was ably led by Dan Snow, putting his own questions and those selected from social media contributors.
The debate began with a run-through of the battle itself, which might have been a waste of time but for the focus on some less trawled-over aspects, such as the belief both sides had in the possibility of U-boats causing significant damage to the Grand Fleet – the German stationing of U-boats in the path of the dreadnoughts and battle cruisers, and Jellicoe’s insistence on leaving harbour at night precisely to protect against that (and the subsequent impact the timings had on the battle).
Following this, the panel was asked whether they agreed with the title of the debate, that Jutland was indeed ‘the battle that won the war.’ Three of the four immediately rejected the notion, though Dr Huck felt that indirectly, this claim could be made. Most assertions that the Battle of Jutland represented a war-winning victory for the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet rely on the belief that it cemented the RN’s blockade of Germany, which eventually starved the Central power into surrender. The most surprising take on this came from Dr Rowe, who indicated that current thinking attributes Germany’s severe supply problems far more to internal planning failures than a successful blockade. The federal system of government, among other things, led to poor central control over the country’s resources and meant that adequate supplies often could not be produced or, if they were, could not be distributed appropriately. The naval blockade had relatively little impact – which throws the naval war into a completely different light than previous orthodoxy had it!
Andrew Gordon’s two assertions in relation to this question were probably the most controversial and hardest to justify – first that Jutland cannot really be considered a battle, and second that it was not necessary for the Royal Navy to fight it to reap the benefits of a ‘fleet in being’ victory. On the first point, Gordon suggested that Jutland should really be considered a series of skirmishes, pointing to the fact that not a single shell from the German High Seas Fleet struck a battleship of the Grand Fleet. The other three members of the panel appeared to disagree with this premise, and I find it a difficult argument to justify. The engagement of the Battle Cruiser Force and Hipper’s battle cruisers was surely long and brutal enough to consider it at least as much a battle as Dogger Bank and the Falklands, say. While there were different phases of the battle, to characterise one as a mere ‘skirmish’ seems unfair – these were not a case of groups of forces blundering into each other, exchanging a bit of wild shot and then disappearing into the murk. It was a large scale engagement that unfolded according to plans on both sides. Just because the clash of battle-fleets was brief did not mean that they were not really in contact – considerable damage was done to the van of the High Seas Fleet by the guns of the Grand Fleet, and the latter did not escape unscathed, as HMS Marlborough was hit by a torpedo from the light forces covering the German retreat.
On the second point that it was not necessary to fight the battle to secure the ‘fleet in being’ advantage, this is less clear. Dr Huck seemed to be of the opinion that the battle itself did restrict the activities and morale of the High Seas Fleet, and confidence in its ability to neutralise the Grand Fleet, though he firmly challenged the myth that it never came out of port again. (There were numerous sorties by the High Seas Fleet and the strategy remained much as it had at the beginning of the war). Moreover, others in the panel pointed out that the Grand Fleet was ready to put to sea the day after returning to port with increased superiority over the High Seas Fleet due to the damage the latter’s dreadnoughts had taken (and the immediate increase in superiority even extended to battle cruisers, despite the loss of three of Beatty’s vessels). Although the High Seas Fleet kept trying to chip away at the Grand Fleet’s superiority until 1918, the Kaiserliche Marine’s focus was increasingly on U-boat warfare, and after Jutland my sense is that it must have been pretty clear that even removing an isolated squadron would be extremely difficult, especially to do so without the intervention of the Grand Fleet – and no qualitative advantage could be relied upon even if parity was achieved.
The ‘publicity battle’ was given its due prominence, as this was one area where the Royal Navy unquestionably suffered a clear defeat by the Kaiserliche Marine – and the debate that continues to this day stems from this aspect. Another area I was unfamiliar with was the manner in which boy seaman Jack Cornwell was awarded his famed Victoria Cross – that a very public campaign was initiated, supported by Beatty, and that the award was finally made very much as part of the Admiralty’s belated attempts to win public sympathy after the initially angry reaction. That there remained controversy in naval circles about whether the award was entirely deserved (Cornwell had remained at his post while mortally wounded, but had not otherwise made any proactive contribution) was also a fascinating, if uncomfortable part of the discussion. A very large sketch for a painting of Cornwell was restored for the Jutland exhibition, where it is now displayed, and I managed to see this before the debate started. The painting, the VC and Cornwell’s exhumation from a common grave and re-burial with military honours was no doubt done with such an appeal to Victorian ‘boy stood on the burning deck’ sentiment that it’s hard not to feel cynical about it now. On the other hand, it’s equally hard not to admire the personal courage of a 16 year old denying himself medical aid in an exposed open-backed gun mounting in the thick of the battle, all of his comrades lying dead around him. It somehow manages to encapsulate the complexities and contradictions of the battle.
There followed questions from the audience, in the auditorium and following the debate via social media. What struck me about the majority of these is that those on the British side are still fixated on ‘what ifs’ – what would have happened if Jellicoe had turned into the torpedo attack instead of away? What would have happened if the Grand Fleet had been better prepared for night action? What would have happened if the British commanders had a more realistic interpretation of the dangers of mines and submarines? This suggests to me that there is still something in the British consciousness that wishes Jutland had been a ‘new Trafalgar,’ where the victorious Royal Navy smashed their foe completely. This was partially dealt with at the end of the debate when the panel, prompted by Nick Hewitt, asserted how unlikely this outcome would have been – steel dreadnoughts and even the more lightly armoured battle cruisers were extremely difficult to sink (especially the German ones, as their more stable propellant and better flash protection processes meant they did not tend to explode catastrophically as British ones had done). It was suggested (I think by Nick Hewitt) that the High Seas Fleet was qualitatively far superior, relative to the Grand Fleet, to the combined French-Spanish fleet that Nelson defeated. Counterfactuals are an important part of the study of any historical battle, but Jutland still seems to be dominated by them.
The Beatty vs Jellicoe debate was less prominent than I thought it might be, and this can only be a good thing. The sooner Jutland ceases to be a battle endlessly refought by ‘Beattyites’ against a rearguard of ‘Jellicoeites,’ the better for the historical discourse. If anything, the faults and shortcomings of both admirals were touched upon, but little of their strengths, particularly those of Jellicoe – while the responsibility placed on him did ‘sit very heavily’ as was stated several times by different members of the panel, he largely fulfilled his responsibilities in preparing the Grand Fleet for battle and wielding the weapon he had forged effectively (certainly better than Beatty in both cases). This partly seems to be another aspect of the ‘what-if’ debate (where it is implied that a more buccaneering CinC could have inflicted a more complete defeat on the High Seas Fleet). While it was touched on that Jellicoe was ‘the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon,’ the likelihood of a misstep leading to that outcome could have perhaps done with more attention. The Grand Fleet’s first duty was to not lose. I wondered what a strategy of avoiding combat at almost any cost might have achieved, but it’s hard to imagine the RN ever adopting this.
I was left with the feeling, even greater than I had before, that while the chances of inflicting fatal damage on the High Seas Fleet were minimal, the chances of the Grand Fleet suffering a significant reduction in its strength were relatively high – there were more ships to lose and certain potentially catastrophic flaws were possible, if not easy, to exploit. The counterfactual that interests me most – particularly given my background in PR – relates to the possible impact of the Admiralty doing better in the publicity war. The Grand Fleet had done the hard bit, and given the enemy dreadnought fleet a very bloody nose, yet the public was left feeling as though it had been soundly defeated. However, the fact that the Grand Fleet had rendered a large part of the High Seas Fleet hors de combat for several months was overshadowed by the actual, un-ignorable loss of RN ships and men, whatever the on-paper facts said in the days and weeks after the battle. So whether it would ever have been possible to convincingly claim a victory is open to question – though the caution with which the Admiralty responded to the battle contrasts sharply with the bravado of the German authorities. After all, to claim a great victory from an engagement where half the fleet had been put in the dockyard, after running from the field (twice!) could be considered an early example of ‘fake news’!
Overall, I felt that the debate had struck a good balance between accessibility and tackling less well-trod parts of the narrative. I learned things that were genuinely surprising and changed some of my long-held views of the battle. And overall, anything that brings the RN’s biggest gunnery battle to greater prominence is a good thing.
Many thanks to Kate Jamieson for the ticket